Helen Henderson is the Managing Director of St Columb's Park House, a Peace and Reconciliation centre based in Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland.
Thursday 5th September
I’m sitting on a plane on the way back to Northern Ireland after 4 days in South Korea at a conference on Peace, Reconciliation and Global Citizenship Education. In times of a climate emergency, it is hard to justify such a trip and I still have ethical dilemmas going on in my head, but have committed to some tree planting on return to the green isle. However, I feel that the need for building alliances is more important now than ever as we recognise the power of the collective and of connecting movements across the globe.
What I really loved about this conference was the refreshing diversity in the room, all walks of life from all the round corners of the globe. This diversity brings a challenge of how to ensure Global Education has shared values and approaches that everyone can connect with and buy into. The content of the conference flipped between soft and hard versions of global education, some focusing on the need to become a good active citizen and others demanding a more critical approach that isn’t afraid to address the legacy of colonialism and inequality. Language around the purpose of global education in creating prosperous and wealthy societies made me feel a little uncomfortable, given that we can’t talk about global poverty without uncovering the inextricable gold thread connected to global wealth.
I am excited and inspired by some of the wonderful people I met, often working in very challenging circumstances and without ego. Tina Trdin from Slovenia who has developed amazing global education interventions delivered creatively on the street, engaging the general public and young people. Marcelo Trivelli from Chile who is training young people as compassionate leaders and changemakers. Paola Nicholls from Columbia, bringing mindfulness and compassion based practices into peace work and Charlene Bearhead who is bringing reconciliation and justice to indigenous communities in Canada. We even made a connection with another strong woman from Northern Ireland who is promoting integrated education. Imagine going all that way to meet someone from your own country!
Off for a sleep now but feeling deeply grateful for the opportunity and committed to bringing something useful back to St Columb’s Park House but also to the wider peace and reconciliation sector.
Monday 9th September
I returned to work in the office today, armed with chopsticks and some curious toffee gingsing sweets. Everyone in my office is asking how we got on in South Korea and my first response is about how we were welcomed and treated so well. I know I should avoid stereotyping but I found that the people in South Korea, from the random stranger on the street to the people at the conference, so kind and helpful. They were genuinely interested in who we were, what we were doing there and thankfully willing to help us find our way back to the hotel when we got lost. One woman had taken a photo of Nuala and I, and when we saw her a few hours later she was enthusiastically waving at us from across the street. An energetic wave and huge smile were such lovely gifts. The people at the conference who invited us as well as the delegates were lovely and it felt surprisingly easy to connect across cultures.
A core element that I brought back to our office is that sense that we are not alone. Our ‘holistic’ approach to peace building is being mirrored and integrated across the world so I was relieved to know that we are not mad! Our wish to bring nature and restorative practices into peace building in Northern Ireland is not that radical after all and that is great! Sometimes, I feel I am talking a different language and I now have wonderful examples of similar work from across the world that can inform and support our approaches. I also see the huge potential for global citizenship education to connect and learn from the local context. Traditionally in Northern Ireland we like to avoid the local stuff and look at the issues that are far away, this is much easier. Can we locate the local conflict and sectarianism within a wider global framework that includes anti-bias, non-violence, interdependence and global justice?
Tuesday 10th September
Today I met with the Chief Executive of the Community Relations Council at our offices. I told her about the conference and the potential for Global Citizenship Education to provide a safe framework for peace and reconciliation locally. Understanding our own conflict within a global context has been really helpful for me personally. Global education gave me the tools and language to critically explore colonialism, capitalism and the structural causes of poverty and conflict. In this conversation, we also spoke about the burn out and poor mental health of practitioners working within the fields of peace building. The principles and practices of non-violence offer us some solutions to this and we explored some of the comments made in Miki Kashtans book ‘Reweaving our human fabric’. A gap that I see in global citizenship education are the practices and pedagogy for cultivating pro-social values such as compassion, empathy, forgiveness and integrity. We know that knowledge is not enough, having all the knowledge in the world does not necessarily lead to positive change. The journey of self to the wider world needs to be articulated more clearly. The presenters at the conference seemed to be clear that there must be an inner process of peace simultaneously as the outer work of peace is developed. There has to be a commitment to openness, personal transformation and learning about ourselves, accepting our flaws and understanding our complicity in war and inequality. We need to develop our skills as changemakers and collaborators that can connect to wider movements that are bigger than ourselves, demonstrating the humility of one person. This journey of personal transformation is far from linear and can look a little messy and convoluted.
On the way home, I drove past a quote graffitied on the side of a house that said, ‘As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person’. In times of such massive and structural change, we need to understand the systems that perpetuate conflict and inequality. We are witnessing our systems dying; our economic system, education system, environmental system and our health system. We need a ‘one-world’ perspective connecting movements and we also need a bringing together of hearts and minds, far away from the scourge of individualism and ego. The ‘practice of peace’ is sometimes missing from peace work in general. We are quick to point the finger of blame and let anger and hate of judgement guide our actions. The most radical action we can take is a lifetime commitment to the practice of peace, as time goes on, the more confident I am in the belief that it will be courageous and fierce love that will get us through.